Burning is not the answer
There is another side to fire as a "natural tool" for achieving forest health. One problem is that we no longer have natural forests, since for the last 80 years, fire has been suppressed, giving us an unnatural condition.
I have been monitoring some of the Forest Service's controlled burns in Wallowa County from last fall. The sites were relatively open, mixed-species stands with most areas overstocked with trees from five to 70 years old. Fuel load on the ground was not heavy. After the burns were completed, the ground-fuel load was pretty well gone, but the areas were still overstocked with trees. The fire killed a lot of young trees in an indiscriminate manner; in fact, it appeared that many of the small trees killed were the best trees. They had more limbs and foliage and were more susceptible to the fire.
Within four or five years, many of these burned trees will fall down, creating a fuel load greater than what was there prior to the burn. These burned trees could be salvaged, but if they are, soil erosion will be a problem because the fire burned most of the "duff' - partially decomposed litter - and plant cover, leaving bare soil. This protective layer enhances the soil's ability to take in water and stay in place. It also insulates it from the summer sun: Fire basically destroys the forest's skin.
Surely it makes more sense to lock carbon up in the form of a board or piece of paper than to send it off as an atmospheric contaminant. I cannot believe people are sanctioning the widespread use of fire to achieve forest health; it is a prehistoric tool in a high-tech world, and people are being misled if they think it is the most environmentally friendly way.
Mechanically removing the excess trees from our forest by responsible people is a no-lose situation. Properly done, it will create a healthy, sustainable forest without smoke and loss of organic matter. Plus, it will provide meaningful, long-term employment for many of our people.
The answer to forest health without fire has been achieved by a few land stewards. Every county has these working models. These models are economically, socially and environmentally sane. Our challenge is to insist that our public land be run as well.
Restoring forest health should also not cost millions of dollars, as some people are saying. If we use the methods of our best stewards, we can have healthy, sustainable forests and make huge profits from our public lands.
Consider the following:
* Fire reduces the effectiveness of the "water cycle," which simply is the land's ability to absorb the snow and rain that falls on it;
* Biomass burning is a major contributor to atmospheric pollution. There is some scary information in this area if you care to look into it. Biomass burning is a major source of methyl bromide, for example, and methyl bromide is said to be 20 to 60 times as damaging to the ozone layer as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs);
* The majority of our unhealthy forest stands are beyond the stage of allowing any "controlled" burning. The fuel loads that have accumulated and the species mix that has evolved make this impossible.
Let's not make or be a part of one of the biggest environmental mistakes of our time by thinking fire is the panacea of our forest-health problem.
For all who take issue with me on this matter, I would welcome a chance to explain myself on the land. Fire is not the answer to forest health - responsible, hard-working people are.
The writer has been involved with forests and forestry issues for 40 years.